How an NBA point guard, a mundane essay, and a cosmic influence launched a career
I became a teacher because of Isiah Thomas.
In 1991, while the Hall of Fame NBA point guard for the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons was adding to his legacy as one of the greatest players in the game, I was watching. When uniform selections were made for all the various teams for which I played as a kid, I always chose #11 in honor of Isiah. For my high school graduation, a friend’s parent gave me a gold necklace with that number dangling from it; I wore it for years.
Like most kids, I was obsessed with someone I could never be.
By that point in my life, I was certain of only a few things: I loved to read and write; I loathed all things math; I had terrible hair and acne. Only the first one matters now, though I would argue the other two are still relevant.
So when my freshman English class was asked to write an essay using the prompt: If you could trade places with anyone in the world, who would it be and why, I didn’t blink before I started to write about Isiah.
When Sue McKenna, then head of the high school English department, walked into my classroom a week later, arms full of loose-leaf paper and gravitas, I thought nothing of it and prepared for a lecture.
But when she started to read my piece on Isiah Thomas, stopping for effect at several points and rereading my last sentence, “But why, I wonder, would Isiah want to trade places with me?” I sat near the back of room C209 blushing through a combination of fear and pride. On the one hand, I didn’t want anyone to know how insanely excited I was for fear of (further) social isolation, but on the other hand, I wanted everyone to know how insanely excited I was that an adult chose my work to use as an exemplar.
Roughly 43 minutes later, I walked out of the classroom as the still anonymous writer of the Ode to Isiah. It didn’t take long for my friends to catch wind of the experience and to out me as the writer, but by then, I was too euphoric to care what people thought.
I was a writer.
That, by way of an otherwise mundane writing assignment the likes of which kids today are still completing, is how I knew I wanted to become a teacher.
I was 14.
From that point on, my focus was razor sharp; my life’s plan was myopic. I would teach high school English. For me, making a conscious decision to never leave school was made with clarity, confidence, and cause. I knew teaching was what I was supposed to do. Nothing else mattered.
Four years after that watershed moment, I was declaring a major at Rowan University while friends were still trying to figure out how to scrounge up enough money for a 12-pack of Natural Light.
Another four years later, as a (still pimply) 22 year old, I was a month into my student teaching experience at Pennsauken High School when I received two calls from two separate teachers at my old high school. The first was from my former basketball coach, and now close friend, Casey Clements, who told me, rather bluntly, “I need a JV coach. Job’s yours if you want it.”
I knew that, for whatever reason, teaching was what I was supposed to do. Nothing else mattered.
Then, hours later, the true measure of the cosmic alignment of my teaching career occurred when, my mentor, John Skrabonja, who served as my real-life John Keating, called to tell me that he was being pressed into emergency action as a guidance counselor after the sudden death of a beloved counselor and that he was recommending me as his replacement.
So on February 1st, 1999, a cool eight years after I wrote about Isiah Thomas, I walked into room C206 on my first day as the new high school English teacher in my old high school. I replaced my hero, in his room, in which I sat, just a few years prior.
Sure, Isiah helped get me there, and I still do wear the #11, but, unlike so many others, my destination had been signposted for me long before I had anything to say about it.
What’s your origin story?